Lecture 134: The Trouble(s) with Being a Journalist - Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton
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Lecture 134: The Trouble(s) with Being a Journalist

Essays from The Daily News, May-October, 1913

New Witness, Vol. II (May-October, 1913)

In May of 1913, the case against Cecil Chesterton, editor of the New Witness, went to trial. He was being sued for criminal libel by Godfrey Isaacs, a key player in the Marconi Affair. The trial concluded in June, with Cecil being found guilty and fined a sum of £100 plus court costs. But the lawsuit did nothing to silence Cecil. It only fueled the fire. In the immediate aftermath of the trial, his paper launched into a full frontal attack against the ruling Liberal Party, on government corruption, on crooked business deals in high places, on lack of freedom in the press, and the works. Cecil’s older brother, G.K. Chesterton, who had attended the trial every day, then attended the public rallies, made a speech announcing that he was no longer a member of the Liberal Party, and… wrote a rollicking anti-Prohibition novel filled with drinking songs. In the New Witness makes only one passing reference to the Marconi Scandal: “The word ‘Marconi’ does indeed stand to-day for a wireless system; a system of silent communications intercepting and embarrassing the men who pull the wires.” 

He continues to see a growing and unaddressed problem with the unholy alliance of big business and big government: “In the big shops and offices (Governmental or other), the employees are a race of orphans at the mercy of an invisible and irresponsible step-mother. They are oppressed, and have no oppressor. They are sweated, sacked and fined according to the secret pressure brought to bear on their company by another company; or by politicians, bureaucrats, or by capitalists or politicians.” 

He lets his fellow journalists fume on about the Marconi Scandal while he takes on a quite different issue, taking a position that today would be considered unthinkable. He opposes Female Suffrage. 

How could Chesterton possibly be opposed to women having the vote? The man to whom politics once meant so much, who used to spend hours going out canvassing on behalf of his party, is now telling women that the vote didn’t mean anything. “Politics is paper money. The vote is only a cheque that is sure to be dishonoured.” He says of a certain suffragist, “I have no doubt that she despises me and all my sex,” but that has always been her right in spite of her political status. He sees that women will be used as political tools just as they are already used as commercial tools. The feminist has been fooled into thinking the vote means something, just as she has been fooled into demanding her right to be abused in the factory and the office like her wage-slave male counterparts. 

Who has the greatest influence in society? The woman, he says. “From the first tremendous fountains of life very man knows that nearly everything around, him is female.” The feminist is merely breaking the spell that women have over men. “All the female things are gigantic things—for children. All the female things are still gigantic things, even for grown men… Now the root reason at the bottom of all male aversion to Feminism is an aversion to the great things of our childhood growing small. A boy does not want his mother to despise what he has adored.”   

If a woman really wants to exercise her power and influence, Chesterton says there are far better places to do it than in the ballot box. Let her start by claiming her children from the school-master and claiming her roof from the landlord. The way to fix society is to make the home more prominent, the family more powerful over the state and the factory. “The home is not only the only real place for repose, but is also the only real place for revolutions.”  

His argument that political decisions, or anything concerned with votes or with representative government, should be a family decision, with the family spokesman voting, is an argument that will no doubt fall on deaf ears. His parting comment that “The quarrel between man and woman can never be settled: because it is a lover’s quarrel” will no doubt be unsatisfactory. But there is also no doubt that Chesterton takes a high view of women and not a low view. His analysis of the effect of feminism, that it will mean the de-feminizing of women (not to mention the feminizing of men), that it will in the long run be detrimental to women, cannot be ignored: “If the exaltation of woman can be the exaggeration of womanhood, it will be a permanent poem which humanity will always remember with pleasure. If it is something abrupt and broken, something even temporarily unwomanly, humanity will remember it with pain.”  

Along with losing our poetic view of women, Chesterton says we are also losing our poetical view of everything else, including poets. 

We know there are poets to commemorate warriors: but, indeed, it is very often the warriors who commemorate the poets. The winning of a battle is often the fulfillment of a prophecy, or even the interpretation of a dream. We in the West to-day do not take this poetical view of practical things, that is why we do not win the battles. If we study the historic fact, it will be found that few people, on the whole, have given such good practical advice as the poets. 

He says we have lost our poetic instinct, “the creative part of man.” 

Interestingly, at the same time that Chesterton was going through pain of watching his brother put on trial, and up to his eyeballs in political controversy, and bemoaning the loss of the poetical, he was writing a novel which he said was one of the books he most enjoyed writing, The Flying Inn. Two of its most famous and most fun songs first appeared in the pages of the New Witness at this time, “The Logical Vegetarian” and “The Rolling English Road.” GKC never seems to have lost his poetic instinct.  

But the trials of journalism are beginning to show. “The trouble with the journalist,” he says, “is that he has to work as hard as a millionaire; while he hates work as heartily as a mystic. It is a dangerous trade to be at once lazy and busy. The effect is that things are finished at the last moment—sometimes (if you can bear the thought) begun at the last moment…” The overwork will come close to killing him a year later. 

This essay was originally published in the November/December 2018 issue of Gilbert! magazine.